Working Potter: Julie Crosby

Box, 7 in. (18 cm) in length, handbuilt cone-3 earthenware, terra sigillata, black stain, wood/soda fired. Photo: Ann Cady.

My reason for pursuing pottery as a profession was simple in the beginning. I wanted to make pots. I wanted to walk out to my studio in the morning, come back in for lunch, then go back out and work until dinner. I wanted to chop wood and sit by my own kiln through the night and into the morning. I wanted the life of a potter, and to have that, I needed to learn how to make a living at it. Admittedly, it was a naive and hopelessly romantic vision, but it was the driving force that ultimately brought me to the life I have now. While I can honestly say that I’ve acquired much of that romantic vision, my path (like that of many others) has not been without obstacles and hard lessons learned. My career has had many layers. The work I make, the time I spend making it, how I sell it, and what else I do to make an income have shifted and evolved over time, as the other important parts of my life fold in and concurrently weave through it.

Pursuing a Potter’s Life

My first attempt at making a living as a potter and attaining that elusive potter’s life was a failure. I say that with kindness toward myself, not as a put down. I was young and determined. Going after my goal wholeheartedly, I moved to an isolated place in the woods, where I had a little house with a big studio, a wood kiln, and a mortgage. There was a rhythm of long hours in the studio, preparing wood, firing the kiln, and going to shows to sell the pots. It was blissful but hard to maintain. I learned two important lessons over the course of four years that changed my perception of being a professional potter. One was about business. The number of pots I needed to make and sell to keep up with my overhead proved to be more than I could handle. So, if I wanted to keep making pots, I needed to lower my overhead. The second lesson was about community and connection. I had developed a wonderful crew of friends who came by to help with the wood firings, but I mostly lived and worked alone. For someone who loves solitude, the intermittent socializing around the firing was just right for a while. As time went on, I learned that I needed both solitude and steady companionship to grow as a person and as a potter. The decision to sell my dream place in the woods was difficult but necessary and ultimately proved fortuitous.

Julie Crosby at her studio loading the kiln. Photo: Marilyn Rivchin.

Crosby building a kiln. Photo: Kathleen Fisher.

In making that decision, my life opened up to create room for marriage and motherhood. Being a mom plays a huge role in how I make and sell my work. For the past fifteen years, I’ve lived with my husband, Tom, and our daughter, Genevieve, in a rural town outside of Ithaca, New York, where I have a small studio and wood kiln. Through these years I have developed a new rhythm in the studio. During the baby, toddler, and pre-school years, I made work that could be covered up for days or weeks at a time—larger vessels and baskets that didn’t require small parts and pieces. This work got me into higher-end shows, including the Smithsonian Craft Show and the Philadelphia Museum of Art Craft Show. The opportunity to sell work on these platforms was a nice ego boost and I certainly sold a lot of pots at these shows. However, the bigger the show, the bigger the effort, expense, and traveling time. It became exhausting to stay in that cycle. In the end, the return on my investment of time, energy, and money wasn’t proving to be worth it. Though I still do shows, they are mostly pottery specific and invitational shows. Grouping potters together seems to be a good model for selling work. For me, these shows suit my working style and the number of pots I can produce in a year.

Now that Genevieve is a teenager, her life is very full and as a result Tom’s life and my own life are fuller as well. Her interests overflow to us and we are learning about music (jazz, classical, concert band) as well as the intricacies involved in the sport of gymnastics. Since the needs of a teenager are quite different from those of a younger kid, I have more time during the week in the studio and for other pursuits such as running and going to the gym. Tom and I get to have date nights, too, when she is at a practice, a sweet benefit for our relationship.

Julie Crosby in the studio glazing. Photo: Marilyn Rivchin.

Another important shift happened and changed the way I sell my work when I became a member of an artisan cooperative in Ithaca in 2013. The Handwork Cooperative was started by a small group of artists in 1976 and continues to thrive today with a large space and 45 working-artist members. Being a cooperative member has allowed me to connect with a local audience and build a loyal following, as the store offers each member ample space for displaying and selling work. It also provides a certain amount of stability as a year-round venue in which to sell pots. There is the added benefit of working with a community of creative people who support one another.

Marketing and Building a Following

Social media is something I am comfortable with and use as a way to share what I’m working on and promote where I sell it. When I’m working toward a firing I’ll post images of the studio, work in progress, loading and firing the kiln, and the finished work. Then I’ll create a couple of posts on where the work is going—either to a gallery show, online, or to restock my shelves at Handwork Cooperative. On rare occasions I have sold pots directly from a post, but I find social media to be most useful in letting people know where they can buy my work.

Basket, 15 in. (38 cm) in length, handbuilt cone-3 earthenware, terra sigillata, wood/soda fired, 2019. Photo: Ann Cady.

Double-tiered basket, 12 in. (30 cm) in length, cone-3 earthenware, terra sigillata, wood/soda fired. Photo: Ann Cady.

A unique addition to how I make an income is through kiln design, building, and consulting. I first began learning how to build kilns from my mentor, Lisa Stinson, when I was a couple of years out of college. Lisa was my most influential teacher at the Hartford Art School in Hartford, Connecticut, where I took my first ceramics class and later graduated with a BFA in ceramics. She invited me and a few other former students to Louisiana Tech University to help her build kilns as part of their new ceramics department. We worked with her for a year and built two gas kilns: a sprung-arch salt kiln and a catenary-arch soft-brick kiln. Over the last 22 years, I have worked to develop this skill set into a sound and rewarding business. On average, I build one or two kilns per year and occasionally supply a design for someone wanting to build their own kiln. This work allows me to use my brain in a different way from making pots. While there are many challenging aspects to building someone else’s kiln, there is great satisfaction in working with other potters to build a tool that will help them to realize their goals. When a potter decides to build a kiln of their own, it is a big step and one that I have a great respect for. The process of working with someone on what can be, for them, a life-changing project requires a mutual trust that has often resulted in new friendships.

Divided server, 16 in. (41 cm) in length, cone-3 earthenware, terra sigillata, turquoise glaze, wood/soda fired. Photo: Ann Cady.

Community and Growth

Most recently I joined together with a group of local potters, most of them Handwork Cooperative members, to create the Finger Lakes Pottery Tour. As pottery tours are becoming more popular throughout the country and a viable way for potters to make an income, it made sense for us to organize one here. The Finger Lakes is a beautiful region of New York state with a thriving tourist industry centered around lake life, local wineries, music, and the arts. Our growing event was to take place for the third year in May, but due to the COVID-19 outbreak, we had to cancel. Along with the disappointment of not being able to come together with our fellow potters, the stress of not having that income adds to the overwhelming reality we are all facing right now.

It becomes difficult now to talk about or give advice on how to make a living as a professional potter when life and commerce as we know it has come to a halt. I hope that by the time you are reading this, things will be pointing toward normal. At this point I can only offer what I have learned so far from pursuing a career as a potter: studio practice is integral, but so is building and maintaining relationships. Developing other skills to draw on is a good idea and can be an important component of making an income. Teaching is an extension of studio practice. Working with students to share what you know helps to keep you honest with your own work. Failure is an opportunity for growth. It seems that uncertain times have the potential for profound invention and creativity. As makers we can ease our personal and collective anxiety by continuing to create and finding new ways to share what we do with others.

Julie Crosby’s studio. Photo: Marilyn Rivchin.

Career Snapshot

Years as a professional potter
20

Number of pots made in a year
500

Education
Bachelor of Fine Arts in ceramics from the University of Hartford in West Hartford, Connecticut, 1995

The time it takes
Making Work (Including Firing): 50%
Promotions/Selling: 45%
Office/Bookkeeping: 5%

Favorite Tool
A knife made by a friend that I’ve had since 1998

Favorite Process
Cutting out clay for handles or baskets

Where it Goes
Retail Stores (Handwork Co-op): 20%
Galleries: 5%
Craft/Art Fairs/Pottery Shows: 10%
Studio/Home/Pottery Tour: 10%
Online: 5%
Other (Kiln Building): 50%

Where to See More
Finger Lakes Pottery Tour: www.fingerlakespotterytour.com
Handwork Cooperative: www.handwork.coop

Learn More
Website: http://juliecrosbypottery.com
Instagram: @juliecrosbypottery
Facebook: Julie Crosby Pottery

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